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            Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra


            Miguel de Cervantes' baptism occurred on October 9, 1547, at Alcala de Henares, Spain, so it is reasonable to assume he was born around that time, and Alcala de Henares has long claimed itself as his birthplace. The son of Rodrigo de Cervantes, an itinerant and not-too-successful surgeon, Miguel was educated by monks as he and his family wandered from city to city. In 1570 he obtained a position as a kind of secretary to Cardinal Aquaviva in Rome. In 1571 he became a soldier and fought in the famous Battle of Lepanto that pitted Spain against Turkish forces. Being ill with fever at the time, and wishing to prove his bravery, he asked to be put in the most dangerous fighting position on his ship. He was, and received two wounds in the chest and one in his left hand, which rendered him disabled for life. Returning home with his brother Rodrigo in 1575, they were captured by the Barbary pirates and sold into slavery. He and his fellow captives made three attempts to escape, all unsuccessful - one because they were betrayed by a fellow captive. In each attempt Cervantes deliberately shouldered the blame on himself, in an attempt to shield his fellow captives from torture. The Turkish Bey was so impressed with his perhaps foolhardy audacity that he spared him each time. The Cervantes family was able to ransom Rodrigo but not Miguel, and he remained in captivity until 1580, when he was finally ransomed by two Trinitarian friars.

            He then began a writing career, which was at first completely unsuccessful due to the fact that Cervantes deliberately tried to write the kind of plays and poetry popular at the time, and to imitate their style, something he was woefully inadequate at doing. He fathered a daughter out of wedlock, and entered into an unhappy marriage in 1584. He took on a series of odd jobs to make ends meet. His financial difficulties netted him three or more prison terms and an excommunication by the Spanish Inquisition, although it was clear he never committed any crimes. Finally, in 1605, he published the first part of the novel which gave him immortality, the brilliant and unforgettable "Don Quixote de La Mancha", which was supposed to be a satire on the chivalric novels of the time, but was actually a work unlike anything anyone else had ever written (the second part followed ten years later, after the success of the first had produced a plagiarized sequel that not only coarsened the satire but contained openly insulting remarks about Cervantes). "Don Quixote"'s surface seems comic, but Cervantes, finally writing in his own personal style and no one else's, created two characters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, to whom he gives more multi-layered depth than anyone else up to that time had given characters, except possibly the depth that William Shakespeare had given to Hamlet. The novel "Don Quixote" itself becomes an ironic mixture of comedy, humiliation, disillusionment and tragedy. All of its characters, except those in the interpolated romance novels, are believable and each reacts to Don Quixote's madness in an illuminating way. "Don Quixote" was immensely successful in its time, but it did not make Cervantes a wealthy man.

            His other highly regarded works are his collection of "Exemplary Stories", published in 1613, and his "Eight Interludes", published in 1615. He died of dropsy on April 23, 1616, but in an especially ironic twist, his gravesite is lost. His contemporary, William Shakespeare, died ten days later, which according to the Julian calendar then used in England was, coincidentally, also April 23, 1616. Strangely enough, to the end of his life, Cervantes valued his poetic work more highly than his prose (perhaps just a case of wishful thinking) and never considered "Don Quixote" his masterpiece. He died without knowing that it would be one day regarded as the world's greatest novel by many critics.